Emotions: The Language of the BodyFeb 28, 2023
A thought or belief isn't just "all in the mind." The mind is more than something we use to interpret the world. A thought or belief isn’t something nebulous that kind of floats off into the ether. Mind and emotions impact the physical state of the body. They can even enhance performance.
- David R. Hamilton
When mind, body, and spirit are in great harmony, happiness is the natural result.
- Deepak Chopra
We've all been there. That feeling of dread in the pit of our stomach when something bad happens. Or the elation we feel when something good happens.
Emotions are incredibly important in our lives, yet many people do not understand them or know how to manage them effectively.
This article will discuss the importance of emotions and what they can tell us about ourselves. We will also cover some tips on how to manage your emotions healthily, using the power of the mind-body connection.
The Intimate Mind-Body Connection
The connection between emotions and the body is complex and fascinating. When we feel an emotion, our body reacts in various ways.
For example, when we feel fear, our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, and we may sweat. When we feel happy or excited, our body responds with increased levels of energy and pleasure.
More people know the mind and body are connected. What you may not be aware of is that the link between emotions and the body is bidirectional.
Not only do our emotions affect our bodies, but our bodies also affect our emotions.
The questions are how and why. To know the answers, let's talk about the nervous system.
What Is the Nervous System?
The nervous system is a complex network of cells and tissues that carries messages throughout our body. These messages move across the body as electrical signals, which allow us to sense things like pain and pleasure.
It has two primary divisions:
- The brain and the spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). Also known as the command center, both receive information from the environment and then process and organize it. In fact, the brain handles over 65,000 thoughts daily, traveling at around 300 miles an hour between billions of neurons.
- The peripheral nervous system (PNS) carries signals from all body parts to the CNS via the thousands of nerves that branch out from the spinal cord to the organs, muscles, and tissues.
It’s like two lungs working in tandem to keep everything running smoothly.
One intakes and processes information, while the other takes care of the implementation. Both systems rely heavily on each other to help properly control bodily functions, keeping everything in check and allowing you to live your life easier.
But that's not all! You can further subdivide PNS into autonomic and somatic nervous systems:
- The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls automatic or involuntary body processes, such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion. It also regulates glands, like the adrenals that produce cortisol or the stress hormone.
- The somatic nervous system (SNS) handles consciously controlled activities such as muscle movements. It also delivers data from the skin, ears, and eyes to the CNS.
Now, how do all these parts relate to emotions?
Emotions and the Nervous System
Understanding the link between the CNS and PNS regarding emotions is like a game of chess. Your brain is your queen, controlling all activity in the body. In particular, in the brain, you will find the hypothalamus, which serves as the emotional center of your body.
This region interprets input from all senses and translates it into a reaction. The hypothalamus then passes this information to the amygdala, which is the hub for all emotions, from love to fear.
Meanwhile, your PNS is the piece that does all the heavy lifting for feeling and regulating emotions.
In this analogy, your sensory receptors in your PNS are like scouts, constantly checking in with the brain to tell it what's happening in "the real world" outside of your body, whether that be physical sensations or unexpected events.
Then your body reacts by signaling to create physiological responses based on these sensations and events.
For example, when you feel threatened, the emotional center in your brain sends a message to your body and triggers the well-known “fight or flight” response. It activates the adrenal glands, releasing cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstreams to increase heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure—essentially preparing us for action.
How Actions Also Impact Emotions
Photo credit: Anthony Fomin @Unsplash
However, sometimes it can be the other way around. What we do to our bodies can also affect how we feel emotionally.
Take, for example, this recent Stanford study that revealed how smiling, even when forced, can actually make us feel happier.
Nicholas Cole and other scientists believe a smile may trigger the PNS to inform the rest of the nervous system what is happening and "ask" it to respond accordingly. Because it may interpret smiling as a positive feeling, it generates sensations of happiness.
Another example is exercising. When we exercise, the body releases endorphins and hormones like serotonin and dopamine linked with pleasure. So it follows that the more you exercise, the better you’ll feel mentally and physically.
Then there's van der Kolk who shared that the body can keep score of the trauma, eventually hijacking the nervous system and significantly altering our fight-flight response.
How You Can Harness This Mind-Body Connection to Manage Your Emotions
Photo credit: Johnny Mcclung @Unsplash
Understanding the intimate link between your mind and body is so essential because:
- It validates that our emotions are not arbitrary. Rather, they’re based on physiological processes happening inside and outside us.
- It can help empower us to take control of our mental health by consciously influencing our physiology.
You have what it takes to regulate or manage your emotions!
Here are three options:
1. Somatic Breathing
Somatic breathing is one of the most effective strategies to manage your emotions, including anxiety.
This process involves focusing on your breath and the physical sensations of your body. It helps you to connect with yourself, allowing more awareness and a better understanding of where the emotional state is coming from.
Paying attention to the tightness in your chest or constriction in your throat, for example, can bring relief because it lets us acknowledge our emotions and accept that they’re only temporary.
We become observers and can make peace with the feeling, rather than fighting it, which can make us feel even more overwhelmed and scared.
The calming effects of somatic breathing can also reduce our levels of stress hormones. This helps us move toward a state of relaxation, allowing us to return to our bodies with a refreshed and relaxed state of mind.
To do it:
- Start by finding a comfortable position - lying down or sitting up both work! - and gently close your eyes.
- Begin to draw attention to the parts of your body that are in contact with whatever you are sitting or lying on. Notice how the sensation changes as you expand your awareness to other parts of you.
- Focus on your breath next, noticing the rhythm and texture. You may find sensations in the belly that move with every inhale and exhale, which is totally normal. This sense of fluidity creates a grounding effect and helps center us in our bodies rather than our thoughts and feelings.
- After a while, consciously relax any tension that has accumulated in various parts of your body.
When emotions become too intense, we can also use a technique called grounding. This involves using the five senses to bring awareness back to the present moment.
Here are some examples:
- Looking around your environment and describing five colors that you see
- Listening to five sounds in your surroundings
- Touching a piece of fabric or object and describing its texture with five words
- Smelling five different aromas in the air
- Tasting something like tea or a piece of fruit, then describing its flavor
These activities work by redirecting your attention from your emotional experience to the present moment. This is a great way to regulate your emotions and bring peace to your body.
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Writing your thoughts down can help you process and make sense of them.
This simple act can provide perspective and insight, allowing us to release any pent-up emotions. It also helps build resilience by connecting with our inner strength and resources.
To journal effectively:
- Start by writing whatever comes to mind without judgment or editing.
- Give yourself permission to express your feelings honestly and openly.
- Don’t worry about making sense of it all. Allow yourself to be in the space and write whatever needs to come out.
No matter what we’re feeling, remember that emotions are not something to be feared. They can provide valuable insight into our needs and help us take necessary action to heal and grow.
By consciously engaging in somatic breathing, grounding, and journaling practices, we can build awareness of our emotional experiences and cultivate greater emotional intelligence.
We can also use these strategies to help manage anxiety, allowing us to live in more harmony and peace. The key is to be gentle and patient with ourselves as we learn to navigate our emotions in a healthy way.
Photo credit: Caroline Veronez @Unsplash
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